Boston Celtics big man Daniel Theis finally went viral during Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors.
No, not for his underrated defense or his elite screening and sealing that often frees up his All-Star teammates for easy buckets. Theis went viral because Pascal Siakam kicked him in the face in the middle of an NBA game.
It was inadvertent but this wasn’t a glancing blow. This was Shawn Michaels landing Sweet Chin Music during his WWE heyday. It was Daniel LaRusso's roundhouse making you wonder if you forgot to pause Cobra Kai.
It’s also about the only way Theis gets national attention. At halftime of TNT’s broadcast of Game 5, during a highlight montage that included a loud Theis transition dunk and the block that set up Jaylen Brown's poster jam, Shaquille O’Neal (jokingly?) said he didn’t know Theis’ name then compared him to Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
Maybe a bright mohawk and some more tattoos would get everyone to take notice of Theis more. Until then, the German big man is content to do what he does every night: Play solid defense, do all the grunt work on the offensive end, and knock down open shots when the defense leaves him open.
We’d go so far as to say this: Theis might have been the Celtics’ MVP of a must-have Game 5. Sure, Marcus Smart’s defense on Kyle Lowry changed everything, but it was Theis who often helped clog Lowry’s path to the rim, and even took Lowry on a switch and put on a clinic in not being baited into a foul before forcing a Lowry airball.
One of the biggest question marks surrounding the Celtics entering the postseason was how their big men would hold up against the elite frontcourts of the East. There was concern whether Theis could hang with the likes of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.
All Theis has done is outwork both frontcourts while helping put the Celtics on the doorstep of the Eastern Conference finals. Boston can close out the Raptors in Wednesday’s Game 6.
Theis’ efforts have been especially notable in this Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Raptors. Unlike in Round 1 when the Celtics could deploy Enes Kanter and let him joust with Embiid for long stretches, Theis has been the only big that Celtics coach Brad Stevens can consistently lean on. Theis’ playing time has spiked to 28.5 minutes per game — up more than 4 minutes per game from the regular season — and he's responded by turning in inspired play against a Gasol/Ibaka duo that has a combined earning of $48.8 million this season. That’s $43.8 million more than Theis is making.
Theis re-signed with Boston on a two-year, $10 million pact last summer. He was supposed to be Kanter’s backup in a patchwork frontcourt after the departures of Horford and Aron Baynes but an early season injury to Kanter elevated Theis to starter. It soon became clear that he would not budge from that spot.
Neither Theis’ regular-season line (9.2 points, 6.6 rebounds) nor his postseason marks (9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds) leap off the page. But it doesn’t tell the full story with Theis, who accentuates the talent around him and plays smart, steady defense. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus stat ranked him second in the entire league in Defensive RPM this season behind only Rudy Gobert.
And it’s defense that has been the story with Theis this postseason. Through nine playoff games, the Celtics are allowing only 99.6 points per 100 possessions when Theis is on the floor. Narrow that focus to the Raptors series and the number plummets to 92.6 (and spikes to 105.2 in the 97 minutes Theis is off the floor against the Raptors). Among players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, Theis has the best defensive rating in the conference semifinals (Jayson Tatum is next best at 94.6, PJ Tucker is the closest non-teammate at 95).
Theis has his rough patches but you can never question his effort. He somehow is able to keep his composure even as referees whistle him for the slightest of infractions. The “War on Theis” is real and it is spectacular. Denizens of Celtics Twitter playfully quipped that they were surprised Theis didn’t get called for some sort of foul after Siakam kicked him in the face. Theis, it should be noted, got whistled for a flagrant earlier in the series for an inadvertent elbow to Lowry’s face, and didn’t even get a review on the kick so there’s no peace treaty in sight with the officials.
Theis would be in the spotlight even more if not for OG Anunoby’s improbable winner in Game 3. Moments before that, Theis had taken a beautiful feed from Kemba Walker and seemingly put the Celtics up 3-0 with a dunk with 0.5 seconds to play.
The Celtics then came out impossibly flat in Game 4 but Theis helped set the defensive tone in Game 5. He routinely provided help defense that caused the Raptors to struggle near the basket and he swatted a couple of first-half offerings, too.
Theis added 15 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting and 8 rebounds over 30 minutes, 29 seconds of floor time. The NBA’s defensive data had him holding opponents to 15 points on 6-of-18 shooting. Gasol was 0-for-4 against him, while Ibaka was 1-for-2 with 2 points. Theis was credited with defending Lowry for 1 minute, 26 seconds and only gave up 3 points on 1-of-3 shooting with the shot-clock turnover to highlight his play.
The best example of Theis’ impact might have come in the opening minutes. First he helped deter a Fred VanVleet drive, recovered to help force a Marc Gasol miss, snagged the rebound, and started the break the other way. Despite trailing, Theis never stopped running and took a little bounce pass from Walker before delivering a one-handed jam down the middle of the paint.
Entering the Toronto series, it felt like the Celtics might be able to lean heavy on backup big man Robert Williams, whose rim-running ways had put stress on the Raptors defense during regular-season meetings, including a lopsided seedings-game win. Despite some encouraging spurts, Williams has struggled, defensively, especially when deployed with Ibaka on the floor. Stevens has had to audible in each of the past two games and go with rookie Grant Williams in switchable, small-ball lineups when Theis is off the court.
Ibaka spent Tuesday morning in a boot due to a sprained ankle and the Raptors listed him as questionable for Wednesday’s Game 6. That might open the door for more minutes for Rob Williams, depending on how much the Raptors elect to lean on Gasol, who is having a different sort of painful series. But, ultimately, it’s been Theis who has had to hold the fort at the center spot in a series in which Kanter is not a great fit.
It’s tempting, too, to start daydreaming about a Celtics-Heat matchup in the East finals. Theis drew the lion share of minutes defending Bam Adebayo in that matchup and it would be another small-ball heavy series with Theis again being the key to holding down the fort (Jaylen Brown will get a hefty dose, too, if Boston advances, especially given his success versus Siakam this round).
But there’s work to be done before that. The Celtics need another dominant defensive effort to get to the finish line of this series. Boston needs Theis to continue to quietly do all the dirty work.
Like getting kicked in the face and just moving onto the next play. As Theis captioned a photo of him getting kicked on his Instagram story, “No complaining — Playoff mentality.”
Theis certainly has it. Even if he doesn’t get enough playoff attention.